Offering resources and space to artists, community members, and groups with limited budgets, the Multi-Tool project functioned as an art space, meeting area, and community venue in Wilkinsburg. The space housed projects including a bicycle education initiative, a number of local bands, and a bookstore.
Multi-Tool was housed at The Mr. Roboto Project, a DIY community space previously located in Wilkinsburg, PA. Below is an excerpt from Building a Better Robot, a Seed Award-supported book that looks back on the early years of The Mr. Roboto Project.
Shortly after Roboto II closed, the Roboto cooperative was offered a chance to expand again, though not into another show space. The storefront at 724 Wood Street, immediately next door to the original Roboto, opened up when the Tribal Skars tattoo parlor moved out. Given the proximity and low rent (the space was also owned by landlord Como), the board made the decision to go ahead and rent out the space. It was to be an incubator space for Roboto-related projects – The Big Idea, the infoshop that had grown during the Roboto II days, moved in, as did Free Ride, a recycled-bike program. Given that more than one project was going on there, the space became known as the Multi-Tool.
Free Ride, in its first iteration, existed briefly in Oakland in the very early 2000s; a local activist named Joy started the operation out of an “occupied house” (a squat) that was soon shut down by the police, leaving the project homeless again.
In 2002, Erok Boerer and Andalusia Knoll, activists and cyclists both, began working on reviving the bike-repair outfit as part of the Wh@t Collective, a group of radicals that met regularly at the time and had largely been behind a May Day 2001 “Reclaim the Streets” party in Downtown Pittsburgh that landed a number of them in jail.
The second coming of Free Ride began at Roboto II, without a lot of planning or, really, know-how. “Joy dropped off his standard ratchet set – it wasn’t even metric,” Boerer explains. “None of us knew anything about bike mechanics. None of us even knew that 99.99 percent of bikes on the market use metric bolts.”
The Roboto II phase of Free Ride wasn’t a much greater success than the Oakland phase had been, says Boerer. “Basically, we were in Roboto II, some kids came and stole some bikes and some tools, and then Roboto II closed.” Free Ride went dormant until the Roboto cooperative agreed to take over the space at 724 Wood, and offered up room in the new Multi-Tool.
The principle on which Free Ride was founded involved a mostly non-monetary economy: The amount of work one put into the project yielded a certain amount of benefit from the shop. If you needed new handlebars and the shop had a pair of handlebars lying around, you didn’t buy them – you donated whatever skill you had to the project, and once you gave a certain amount to Free Ride in the way of work, you got the handlebars you needed.
Organizers viewed it as an indirect form of activism, in more than one sense: For one thing, catering to bicycles encouraged a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, and discouraged car culture. On a deeper level, creating an economy almost completely devoid of currency – and one for which fixed amounts and types of labor were given fixed values not subject to market forces – was itself radical.
Boerer notes that, while (especially early on) many of the Free Ride volunteers were also involved in activist/protest culture, the bike repair project was a different way for activist energy to come out. “We think people should help each other, we think people shouldn’t use as much oil, and we think people should ride bikes more,” explains Boerer. “Those were the three things we were really trying to get across, and [Free Ride] was our way of expressing that.”
The Big Idea, for its part, grew up in tandem with Roboto. The infoshop began as half bookstore and half record shop – all in a temporary, portable collection that would show up more often than not on a table at Roboto shows.
Books from distributors like AK Press and Microcosm were available alongside pamphlets of radical literature and records ordered from Ebullition, the distributor for many of the punk and hardcore labels that existed (and the entity behind the HeartattaCk zine). It was a pairing that made sense: both entities mixed radical politics with loud music and learning.
Just as Roboto was seen as a positive outlet for radical thinking – in its form as a cooperative and as a space for benefit shows for progressive causes like political protest arrestees and the peace and justice organization called the Thomas Merton Center – The Big Idea was a way for leftists, mostly young, some of whom were interested in street-level activism and some of whom weren’t, to participate in political activities. Books about reproductive rights were distributed, flyers for marches against corporate globalization and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were posted, and vegan cookbooks were sold. Occasionally, the literary events (zine tours, poetry readings) that might have been hosted at Roboto early in its existence were taking place at The Big Idea, next door.
For a time, the Multi-Tool played host to both Free Ride and The Big Idea. It was an idea that made sense in theory – many of the same people were involved in both, the projects were supportive of one another. But in practice it wasn’t so simple.
“The Multi-Tool … was an incubator space,” explains Big Idea (and Roboto) founding member Deanna Hitchcock. “Other projects there were getting more established. Free Ride just exploded with bikes, so they needed more space.”
Boerer agrees. “Grease and new books don’t mix very well, despite our like-mindedness. And we had to store our bikes in the basement, which was awful. I think it was about a year, and then it became painfully clear that the space was not suited [to our needs]. We needed to either take over the whole space or move, and we found a space at Construction Junction,” a nearby recycled construction supply non-profit.
On top of the books and bikes, bands had begun to use the basement of the Multi-Tool as a practice space. Over the years, numerous bands – Warzone Womyn, He Taught Me Lies (another band founders Roth and Meisberger were in), Intense Youth! and others – would practice there. One storefront – even spread over two floors – wasn’t enough to hold all that.
Free Ride remains in the Construction Junction space to this day. The Big Idea collective members stumbled upon a small storefront in the city’s Bloomfield neighborhood – still in the eastern part of the city, but closer to both the universities and the housing that most of the store’s patrons were drawn to. The space had previously been home to the office of a state representative; its politics shifted noticeably leftward when the store, now liquidating its record stock to concentrate on book sales, moved in. (In 2011, it moved again, to a space on nearby Liberty Avenue.)
This left the Multi-Tool space to host bands as a practice space exclusively, a setup that continued until late 2005. In December 2005, a water main break on Wood Street directly in front of 724 Wood sent water gushing into the basement space where bands practiced – and kept their gear. Corey Lyons was the first to notice the break.
“I was driving by, headed to my folks’ house,” Lyons recalls. “I don’t even remember why I was going that way, rather than Penn Avenue. I remember looking over as I drove by and saying ‘Wait a minute. That doesn’t look right.’ I pulled over and the sidewalk was caved in, the road was buckling. I called [Mike Bolam] — I didn’t even have a cell phone at the time, so I borrowed one from the woman I was with and called him. I felt so helpless.”
Bolam remembers getting the call; Warzone Womyn had just moved into another practice space and were practicing there, and he cancelled practice in order to alert other bands and Roboto members, and to go help with the cleanup.
Amps and drums were in about three feet of standing water when band members, Roboto representatives and concerned scene citizens arrived to address the situation. “We had to rent a pump to run water out of the basements” of the Multi-Tool and Roboto, Bolam says, “because the drains were clogged with debris.”
“That was the second or third time I thought it was the end of Roboto,” Lyons says with a laugh. “I was walking around saying ‘This is gonna fuck up the foundation!’”
It was, fortunately, not the end for the venue, or for many of the pieces of equipment, which were salvaged in one way or another. But it was the end of the 724 Wood Street space as a place for bands to practice; it would take months for the landlord to restore the space, and it wasn’t worth the wait or trouble for Roboto to stay on a lease there.